Nova Scotia

Group calls for consistent access to STI testing in N.S.

Sexual Health Nova Scotia, a group made up of sexual health centres throughout the province, says the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how difficult it can be for many people to get the health care they need.

Sexual Health Nova Scotia says some services unavailable to many during pandemic, particularly in rural areas

Feb. 14-18 is Sexual and Reproductive Health Week. Sexual Health Nova Scotia is calling for consistent access to STI testing for people living in rural areas. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

A group representing sexual health centres throughout Nova Scotia is calling for consistent access to testing for sexually transmitted infections, especially in rural areas.

Leigh Heide, the provincial co-ordinator of Nova Scotia Sexual Health, said some Nova Scotians have been unable to access services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's something that's been on our radar for a while for sure, including pre-pandemic and then exacerbated by the pandemic," Heide told CBC Radio's Mainstreet Halifax on Wednesday.

One of the group's six member centres, the Halifax Sexual Health Centre, has had to pause testing for certain sexually transmitted infections at various points during the pandemic due to pressures on laboratory staff processing COVID-19 tests.

Heide said the pandemic has impacted not only testing, but efforts to educate the public on sexual health, including a syphilis outbreak reported in January 2020 by Public Health officials in Nova Scotia.

Heide said it's not clear where those cases stand in 2022.

"We imagine the syphilis outbreak hasn't necessarily reduced much over time because we haven't really been able to address it," Heide said.

"We haven't been able to do testing drives to get people out there to get tested for syphilis, we haven't been able to do much in terms of reaching community members."

Heide said the group suspects sexually transmitted infections are on the rise because of poor access to health-care services and safe sex supplies.

"For most of the common [infections] — chlamydia, gonorrhea and those kinds of things — a few weeks wait is not going to change much in terms of the trajectory of the infection," Heide said.

"However, depending on what a person's symptoms look like — which can vary widely — it's probably going to be uncomfortable. I think one of the biggest impacts is going to be the mental health aspect of it."

Coming out of the pandemic, Heide said there are still going to be access issues around testing, which is typically offered at doctors' offices, some walk-in clinics and sexual health clinics. As a last option, some people are tested in an emergency room.

Heide said having a sexual health clinic in each Nova Scotia community, or at least in each health zone, would help, as well as securing long-term government funding instead of having to apply for a grant each year.

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet Halifax